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Bastrop encompasses the remaining tract of the Great Lost Pines forest, an ancient and isolated western-most remnant of a massive Loblolly Pine-filled Piney Woods region that once stretched east through Louisiana and north into Arkansas. When we lived there our home was smack in the middle of SH 21, which runs through the center of the State Park dedicated to preserving those woods. Our beautiful house, set up on a bluff at the end of a 500 yd limestone gravel road and surrounded by thick woods, was situated less than a mile from the origin of what became known as the Bastrop County Complex fire, the largest and most destructive wildfire in Texas history. That house is gone, along with many others, lost to the fire that so devastated the area economically, ecologically and socially. It damaged many families three years ago this coming Thursday, with many still struggling to recover.
I fell in love with the place immediately upon seeing it, being a boy from the country and appreciating the solitary lifestyle amongst those pines. We arrived in May just in time to witness the full bloom of Texas bluebonnets and other native wildflowers after what had been a wet winter and spring. Neither my wife nor I had ever experienced that intensity of Central Texas beauty and it was magical. Our boy was just two years old and there was so much to explore in the area: hiking along the Colorado River beds and sandbars, collecting pecans from majestic old local trees, trekking through the pines and fishing on Lake Bastrop. It was a lovely time, one we look back on fondly and a place we lament the loss of due to fire. What a gift to have had that opportunity.
There were a few drawbacks to living there, as has any location drawbacks. We were isolated and methamphetamine is a real issue in such rural areas. Burglary and home invasion happened(s) and was a constant underlying concern. One day my mother-in-law called me at work while watching our son. "There's a man coming up the driveway wearing a winter coat and a black watch cap!" she told me when I answered the phone. "It's 103°. Where is your pistol?"
Fortunately a couple of rounds fired into the pines drove the man off. He was later arrested walking down the middle of the highway, strung out on meth. The Sheriff wouldn't enter our gate at the head of the driveway so my MiL could ID the guy. He asked her to walk down to met him because the fence posts were painted purple. While this is codified in state law as a legitimate posting of no trespassing, equal to signage, the real meaning to most people of purple fence posts is "Shot On Sight". Even the cop wouldn't enter. "You are lucky you have that firearm, ma'am. Anyone crazy enough to ignore that posting is a danger to you and the child. He's local." It was a major education for all of us. The posts were purple when we got the place but that was our only incident of human concern and we never had another problem like that.
Far more pressing became the concern with Striped Bark scorpions and Brown Recluse spiders.. Both of these critters exist in huge numbers up in those pines, a reality we were unaware of before moving in. Honestly, if we had known the extent of the problem we probably would have passed on moving there. In retrospect, my memory of the place is so fond it is easy to forget just how much of our lives it consumed. A chronic low level stress was a feature of our lives at that time, particularly with a toddler. That part of Bastrop this bastrop does not miss.
Our intro to scorpions happened on day one. Two in the kitchen and one in the bathroom, great big mature ones half way up the walls, tucked into a corner, ambling across the counter top. It was jarring, having never before encountered one. I started to wonder what the deal was so I asked the neighbor. "Oh, yeah we get stung all the time. I'll be laying on the couch and they'd a crawled up under the cushions? Nothing like a pissed off scorpion to ruin your TV watching" I believe were his exact words.
That coupled with my wife's co-worker had us on guard. She also lived out there and told us how they kept getting stung at night in bed and couldn't figure out where they were coming from. Until one night when they kept hearing this "thwap" sound about every 10 or 15 minutes. Turned out the scorpions were crawling down the stem of the ceiling fan above the bed from the attic and getting thrown across the room by the blades. Pissed off flying scorpions. No thank you, please.
So, I went to the local feed store and asked what I should do. "Buy yourself a black light, they fluoresce under black light," said the clerk. "and buy yourself some diatomaceous earth. It'll dry them suckers out right quick." The feed store carried black flashlights at the check out. That's how bad it was for everyone in the area.
Needless to say, I was kind of excited about the flashlight until I walked into the outbuilding that night to see what I could see. I figured they would be worse in an uninsulated building and I was not wrong. Counting well over a dozen scorpions on every plane and surface in the building was unnerving. Moving into the house, even more unnerving was the reality that every room had at least one, sometimes three. Our bedroom where we all slept had five. Something had to be done, and that something was diatomaceous earth and glue strip rat raps in every corner and under every piece of furniture in the house. In time it settled down and became more of a maintenance issue. No one was ever stung.
But the recluse spiders, that was another issue entirely and one we never got much of a handle on. The feed store guy instructed me to "check out how bad the spider problem is" while assessing the scorpions and "learn what they look like so you can kill them suckers ASAP." How will I kill them, will the diatomaceous earth work? "Some, but not much 'cause they don't come in and out. Kill them with whatever you got handy, man. You don't want that bite." But I already knew that much. I was not happy about that news.
Several years earlier I was bitten on my right shin, directly on top of the bone, by a brown recluse spider. I recall sitting at my computer checking AOL (it was 1998, cut me some slack) and going "What is this zit on my leg?' then scratching it off. Within 8 hours my leg was aching and red hot. In twelve I was writhing in agony and that pain, the worst I have ever experienced to date, lasted unabated and unfazed by powerful narcotics for almost a full week. During that time I was building a theatrical set and climbing 40 foot ladders up into the grid. I couldn't bear weight for more than twenty seconds at a time and was constantly shifting back and forth. It was awful.
Also awful was the ulcer that formed. I won't link pictures here but if you are interested, use teh google. That zit became a wound that morphed into a hole I could insert my index finger into till the first knuckle. The shin bone underneath became soft to the point where, if pressed, the indentation remained for almost a day before returning to form. To say nothing of the day while showering that I pulled a dead vein from the wound, thinking it was just dead skin. It ran a full three inches into my leg and caused a shocking sensation, to say the least.
Clearly I was aware of what it meant to live in a house full of these critters. Recluse bites can be very dangerous for small children. "I will take the scorpions", I told my wife. "I will not abide the spiders."
And boy were they in evidence, hundreds of them. They hide but are not shy about walking across the floor or crawling up your bedpost. And they are freaky little bastards who "play dead" when confronted, only to "wake up" and run higgledy-piggledy in their characteristically zig zag pattern. Sometimes that zig-zag comes straight at you.
Soon I became a mad man, devising traps and hunting them down one by one. I should have kept a log of how many I killed in the three years we lived there. Hundreds of spider corpses I offered to the forest as good-riddance. There were bloody everywhere.
Fortunately, as with the scorpions, no one was ever bitten.
When we left Bastrop to settle permanently in Austin it was with mixed emotions. We loved the property and that awesome home. We loved the privacy and the beauty of the area. There is a lot to be said for the town as well, with historic charm and a surprisingly diverse political and racial population. Bastrop may be a hick town but it's half Democratic and almost half black. For a large county seat in a rural area, our biracial family felt welcome there. But the critters and their accompanying anxiety we would not miss. Nor the commute. That sucked, too.
So, when my wife called downstairs to me the other day "Got a scorpion up here, please!" it was a real throwback and a visceral reaction. Latent for years, the electric alert resurfaced full tilt. "Dad, can we keep him as a pet?" my younger boy asked, earnest and excited to see a real live scorpion. "Do you think he has any brothers?" he asked, eyes wide and hopeful. "No, son. That scorpion is not a pet, it needs to go and so do any brothers." I said, scooping it into a cup, claws grasping and tail stinging the paper.
We threw him outside near the fence along the greenbelt. Nice to have met you. Thanks for the memories and good day to you, sir.
You will not be missed.
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